March 6, 2013

Looking for Signs of Spring

Well, the days are getting longer and that gives me hope that soon the winter will be behind us. (That is a bit hard to believe since I just spent a lot of time shoveling a very heavy 6 inches of snow off my driveway!) This past weekend we were out and about looking for signs of spring. We didn't find too many, but we had a fun time, and even visited a nature preserve that was new to us.

Our first destination for the weekend was Charleston Falls Preserve, located north of Dayton along Charleston Creek. We had never been here before and we enjoyed the excellent trail and the 37-foot waterfall where the creek flows over a limestone ledge into a pool below:

Here is another view:

Tiny icicles formed where water seeps through the rocks:

Impressive rock outcrops surround the falls, hosting some interesting plants, remnants of which remain from last year. I loved this delicate Wild Hydrangea, which looks like a miniature version of the huge pompom style hydrangeas found in many gardens:

Another interesting plant which grows on the limestone ledges is Purple Cliff-Brake, an unusual fern that only occurs on alkaline rocks. Its native range is actually quite large, ranging from Guatemala to New England, but it only occurs in a handful of Ohio counties. Here is what it looks like now:

and here is a picture of it in summer in southern Ohio:

Continuing past the falls we hiked along the creek

and then gained a bit of elevation as we hiked through an area that used to have a lot of hawthorn trees:

Not a name that you would expect in Ohio! A wooden observation tower stands at the trail's high point offering a nice view of the surrounding land. My favorite thing about it was an eye-level view of the remains of last year's seed structures on this Tuliptree, one of my favorite trees because of its tulip-shaped leaves, beautiful orange and green flowers, and its tall, straight structure.

We spotted a lot of ash trees that have been killed by the Emerald Ash Borer. Woodpeckers have stripped the bark as they try to get at the larvae that feed beneath the surface. I've heard that the woodpeckers can actually hear the larvae feeding in the tree and stick their long tongues into holes to feed on them.

Near the end of the trail we passed a quiet pond

and enjoyed the sign which can be read in its reflection:

Signs of spring were quite elusive here, as were colors other than brown! We'll just have to visit Charleston Falls Preserve in a warmer season. On the way back we stopped at Prairie Oaks Metro Park and got some welcome dashes of bright blue as several Eastern Bluebirds searched for food around the Darby Bend Lakes:

We started out Sunday just a few miles from our house, at Kiwanis Park in Dublin. This is a somewhat hidden patch of land along the Scioto River that, although it is small, hosts a very nice variety of native plants and breeding birds. The main attraction was one of the few plants that blooms this early in the year:

This is skunk cabbage, named for the fetid odor of the flowers that attracts pollinators. The reddish structure that you see is called the spathe; the actual flower is inside:

This plant is thermogenic--that means that it can generate its own heat, enabling the plant to push through snow to bloom. For more skunk cabbage info, head over to Ohio Birds and Biodiversity at this link and also here. When you see skunk cabbage in bloom, you know that spring can't be too far away!

This year has been great for finding wintering finches here in Ohio, birds which usually stay far to the north. So far this year we've seen White-winged Crossbills, Evening Grosbeaks, Common Redpoll and Hoary Redpoll, plus a Bohemian Waxwing, all of which are uncommon in Ohio. Saturday we saw a report of a Red Crossbill at a feeder in Dublin, and that just happened to be on the way to Sunday's next planned destination so we had to give it a try!

Thanks to a very helpful homeowner who kept a variety of feeders well-stocked, the crossbills appeared soon after we arrived, along with some goldfinches. I didn't get a really good picture, but you can see the oddly shaped bill that gave the bird its name:

It looks like that bill would make eating very difficult, but in fact it facilitates cracking open the cones of conifers to get to the seeds, which are its favored food.

From there we headed to Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area which is near Harpster, Ohio. Wherever ponds were free of ice, flocks of ducks and Tundra Swans congregated:

Winter still had the place firmly in its grip and many of the ponds were completely frozen. We spotted a wintering Northern Saw-Whet Owl, a diminutive bird that is always a thrill to see. This bird generally spends its days perched in an evergreen tree, hunting rodent prey at night.

Despite the cold, we saw many raptors hunting in the fields, including at least a dozen Northern Harriers, numerous Red-tailed Hawks, a couple of Bald Eagles, and lots of American Kestrels. We stayed until sunset when the Short-eared Owl show began--these large owls come out at dusk to hunt and I always love to see their acrobatic soaring, usually fairly low to the ground. At one point, one of the owls flew right toward us at eye level up a drainage ditch, turning just as it came upon us. What a thrill!

Signs of spring? Well, it did our hearts good to hear the distinctive "Conk-a-ree" of the male Red-winged Blackbirds. There were only a few of them but just knowing that they are back at their wetland breeding grounds is a very good sign!

And, late in the day, another welcome spot of color:


  1. I have to find these places. Your information and pictures make me want to go there! I find the plant which generates its own heat fascinating--who knew? We have crocus coming up in the front yard, and I hope they survived today's snow. Love your pictures!!!

    Linda H.

  2. I have not made it over to Charleston Falls Preserve, but your photos and description really made it seem like an appealing park. Loved all the photos (how cute is that upside down sign in the pond? :D).


  3. Nice to see you visit Charleston Falls in my home county of Miami! I grew up less than ten minutes from the preserve and spent many a day wandering around the trails as a youngin'. It's been years since I last paid it a visit even though I drive by it all the time when home.